If there is one thing Jing Jing thinks her four-year-old daughter Jenny should start learning early on, it would be English. The 31-year-old college professor, who lives in Beijing, wants Jenny to speak the language just like a native, so she can become a global-minded person and have more job opportunities when she grows up.
To that end, Jing doesn’t want just any English teacher for her daughter. She pays 5,980 yuan ($750) for a total of 48 online courses where a certified U.S.-based instructor tunes in through live video to remotely teach Jenny every week.
“Learning from a native speaker will give Jenny the right accent,” Jing told Forbes. “The younger she starts the better, because she will accept English as a normal way of communication.”
In China, there are tens of millions of eager parents like Jing. Unsatisfied with Chinese classrooms’ stilted teaching style – and armed with the belief that good English skills are a necessity in the increasingly global China – they want to connect directly with teachers from the U.S. The demand has given birth to a multi-billion dollar online education market, where Chinese startups scour the U.S. and Canada to bring local language curriculums and instructors to their home country via live streaming technology.
The process works like web conferencing. During lessons, which usually last for 30 minutes, students sit in front of their computers and watch their teachers speak while they’re halfway across the world. The tutors will go through teaching materials designed by their Chinese employers, who often borrow from U.S. elementary school curriculums, while using quite a lot of hand gestures to explain basic English to Chinese children mostly aged between 5 and 12.
Last year, the market for online language lessons in China stood at 30 billion yuan ($4.5 billion), according to consultancy firm iResearch. Between now and 2019, it is projected to grow more than 20% a year to reach 52 billion yuan ($7.8 billion), when the country’s entire online education sector will be valued at 270 billion yuan ($41 billion).
“Chinese people, especially those born after 1980, grew up with much more exposure to foreign culture,” said Zhang Yiwei, an analyst with consultancy firm JMDedu. “When they become parents, they want their children to speak English very, very fluently.”
Investors are taking note. In August, VIPKid, a Beijing-based online English tutoring startup, raised $200 million from prominent investors including Chinese gaming and social media giant Tencent Holdings and investment firm Sequoia Capital China. The firm, which says it expects to generate 5 billion yuan ($750 million) in revenue this year, is said to be valued at $1.5 billion, four years after it was founded in 2013. China Online Education Group, also known as 51 Talk, went public in New York last year. And iTutorGroup was valued at $1 billion in a 2015 funding round that included Goldman Sachs and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC.
By Yue Wang